“A Few Not-So-Good Men” will probably be the preferred alternate
title given to William Friedkin’s strongly-cast but poorly-
scripted military courtoom melodrama in which much-decorated
Marine Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) is accused of
improperly opening fire on a crowd of Yemeni demonstrators
after securing the rescue of the endangered U.S. ambassador
and his family. In an entirely predictable fashion, Childers
chooses an unlikely lawyer to defend him: Col. Hays Hodges
(Tommy Lee Jones), an over-the-hill, insecure mediocrity whose
life the defendant had once saved in Vietnam.

“Rules of Engagement” at first seems to be shaping up as a
political conspiracy tale, since a good deal of time is
initially given over to the machinations of slimy NSA advisor
Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), who suppresses exculpatory
evidence in order to insure good U.S.-Arab relations. But
though this subplot continually lurks in the background, the
picture turns more and more into a character study of its two
leading men. Jones and Jackson respond with their customary
energy and dedication, but the soldiers they’re playing never
really come to life (the fault of the script, not the stars).
Col. Hays is the sort of self-doubting lawyer we’ve met before–
Paul Newman played the role to far better effect in “The
Verdict,” for example–and though Jones works diligently, he
remains a cliched figure. Childers is a more interesting
fellow simply because he’s more enigmatic, but he’s kept too
far in the background and never truly comes into focus. Of
course, the vibrant stars try to infuse the men with life–
Jones and Jackson glare, fume and (very often) shout with
great energy, and they even get into a fistfight at one point
which, given their ages, causes some worry about their
physical wellbeing. (Neither is a spring chicken anymore,
after all.) But as much as you admire the effort, both actors
seem way too big for their roles.

There’s a strong supporting cast, too–Australian Guy Pearce
(“L.A. Confidential”) as the prosecutor, Philip Baker Hall as
Hays’ father (a powerful general), Ben Kingsley as the
ambassador whom Childers saves but who refuses to support the
colonel’s account of events for political reasons–but all are
forced to play their roles on a single note, without any
hint of complexity. That makes the characters basically
uninteresting despite the acting talent inhabiting them.

It might be tempting to blame William Friedkin for the film’s
failure, but that wouldn’t be fair. His work is accomplished–
not particularly inventive or forceful, but certainly skilled
and competent (though the crowd scenes appear to be a tad

No, the central flaw of “Rules of Engagement” is the script,
which not only leaves its lead characters sketchily drawn but
fails to deliver on its initial promise as a conspiracy
thriller. Certainly one would expect that after all the
time devoted to Washington political skullduggery to suppress
evidence that would free Childers in the opening reels, that
plot element would be cleverly drawn into the denouement of
the picture. But it isn’t. Instead we’re asked to believe
that stirring oratory alone could be sufficient to lead a
military court virtually to ignore the facts in reaching its
verdict; and in a device that’s a dead giveaway of bad
scripting, a series of written blurbs at the end informs us,
almost as an afterthought, about the fates of important
characters who’ve been lost in the shuffle. Even worse, the
final revelations about the circumstances in which Childers
found himself in Yemen are portrayed in so crudely jingoistic
a fashion that the burst of patriotic enthusiasm the picture
is obviously trying to elicit can’t help but seem crassly

If “Rules of Engagement” had been made as a TV movie, with a
cast of lesser luminaries appropriate to its small-screen
status, it might have been a passable effort. But as a major
studio production its flaws are much magnified, and the effect
is disastrous. Compared to the class of the genre like “The
Caine Mutiny” (and, to a much lesser extent, “A Few Good Men”),
Friedkin’s humdrum film is like a dried-out MRE set against a
luscious Thanksgiving feast.